Breadlines, in which poverty-stricken and hungry Americans queued for free food, were representative of the increasing unemployment and consequent hunger caused by the Depression. Breadlines became common in many cities during the 1930s, and the sheer numbers of homeless and unemployed people often overwhelmed the charities that were giving out food. Rexford G. Tugwell, a New Deal administrator and advisor to Franklin Roosevelt, commented in his diary about the pervasiveness of hunger during the Depression: "Never in modern times . . . has there been so widespread unemployment and such moving distress from cold and hunger."
With the onset of the Great Depression, companies were forced to cut production and to lay off many of their employees. By 1932 there were some thirteen million Americans out of work, or one-fourth of all workers. Even those who remained employed often found their wages and hours sharply reduced, and providing adequate food for oneself and one's family became a daily struggle for many Americans. One oft-repeated story tells of a teacher in West Virginia who directed a young girl to go home and eat. The girl replied, "I can't. This is my sister's day to eat." In New York City one out of five children attending school was reported to be suffering from malnutrition. And in other areas, such as the coal-mining regions of Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, thousands of children went hungry.
Breadlines were thus a necessity during the 1930s. They were run by private charities, such as the Red Cross; private individuals—the gangster Al Capone opened a breadline in Chicago; and government agencies. Breadlines became associated with shame and humiliation because many Americans felt responsible for their own downfall. As one distressed man during the Depression put it: "Shame? You tellin' me? I would go stand in the relief line [and] bend my head low so nobody would recognize me."
Bird, Caroline. The Invisible Scar. 1966.
Garraty, John Arthur. Unemployment in History: EconomicThought and Public Policy. 1978.
Komarovsky, Mirra. The Unemployed Man and His Family:The Effect of Unemployment Upon the Status of the Man in Fifty-Nine Families. 1940.
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America,1929–1941, rev. edition. 1993.